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Partnership instead of advice: why we need fewer consultants and more guides

Having felt isolated and alone managing change, I’ve wondered if there isn’t a better way of supporting ordinary leaders to manage change and difficult transitions. This post reflects this thinking; it's a work in progress that I hope will give others comfort and inspiration as they work through change. And partnering with people through change and what that could look like?

Change is difficult. Whether it's a personal habit or a method of working in an organization, making a change isn't easy and is rarely straightforward. Mostly change is a zig-zagging process in a fog of uncertainty. There are as many steps back as forward before a fundamental change occurs. When I recently discussed my experience leading organizational change with colleagues, we observed how little practical support exists for the person trying to bring about change, even though we know that change leadership is challenging, personally draining and often isolating.

Yes, consultants are frequently brought into organizations to advise on change. They may have a framework and a set of tools to assist organizational leaders in considering their various stakeholders, the stage of the change process, and how to communicate. What they don't do is roll up their sleeves and pick up a shovel to help bring about change. There are many good reasons for this, ranging from the obvious fact that you shouldn't try to change an organization from the outside (you don't know enough) to the notion that the value of a change consultant stems from their detached relationship with the change process.

Organizations provide coaching support to help managers drive a change process. These interventions focus on the individual's resilience and support the individual to have the capacity to provide leadership to the change process. I believe these interventions are valuable, especially when an organization can afford the support. Yet, coaching is often about putting the work back to the 'client', that's the point, but it's also not always what someone leading change needs. Moreover, what happens when, as is the case for a much smaller organization, it's impossible to provide support to a leader working through change?

The more we discussed this problem, the clearer we became about the significant gap in the support available to organizations and managers working through change. The reality is that change is difficult. While you can ensure that you have an external support network and build your resilience for managing change as the CEO, Director, Team Leader, or Project Manager, we need something different in today's world. Organizational managers and change agents require partners willing and able to collaborate during the change process.

A partner in a change process becomes an active agent in supporting change, a mix of coach and consultant, helping move the process forward in partnership with the manager. In practice, I think that a partner in a change process should provide support in three areas that could be scaled up or down as necessary.

Provide a safe, creative space: When individuals in an organization lead a change process, they frequently receive help from their peer group. However, in my experience, that peer group is not entirely safe. There are organizational politics and personal histories at work. So the first step in partnering through change is creating a safe, nonjudgmental environment where an individual's concerns, fears, worries, and vulnerabilities can be shared and discussed. A space where it is acceptable to say "I don't know" and where a collaborative process of creative discovery can assist the individual in building resilience and charting their course of action. I know that organisational leaders I’ve worked with have found this safe, non-judgmental vault invaluable in helping them think through their challenges and identify their next steps.

Route planning: builds on the coaching ethos that an individual can find the solutions, but route planning must be more active, helping to co-create ideas and bringing experience from other change processes to inform and help develop the plan. Route planning involves inquiry-based thinking and co-creation to build an ever-changing action plan. A partner's role is to assist the individual in developing the ideas, identifying the gaps, and working out the best way forward. It requires the partner to be on the journey with the manager. For example, suppose you are a mountain guide. In that case, you are on the mountain with the individual, working with them to identify the route, seeing where skills need to be developed and figuring out how to move forward effectively.

Active participant: entails doing. Change processes will always be difficult. In the right environment, someone willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty by putting together a proposal, commenting on a slide pack, or helping to shape communication plays a critical role in delivering change. A change partner is actively involved in making change happen and works with and as an ally of the manager to enable the change process.

Each of these areas is scalable. Like dials, they should be adjusted to the needs of the individual and the organization and may differ depending on where the organization is in the change process. The partner may be most appropriate to focus on creating a space and coaching the change leader, while others will work side by side with the CEO as an interim leader.

For example, I have recently been partnering with a CEO through a change process, and over the course of this partnership, we’ve adjusted the dials in these various areas. Our weekly conversations are frequently about creating a space to air concerns and create personal accountability in the change process. Still, sometimes it is helpful if I become more active in drafting a document, commenting on a slide deck, or making a connection to provide additional support. In each case, the dials need adjusting to the conditions in front of us, just like when you change your route on a mountain because the weather has changed.

This is not a plea to move away from consultants or coaches. I think both have their place and are often invaluable to organizations and individuals leading through change. My plea is to expand our toolkit and, when appropriate, look for partnerships that are built around creating a safe and creative space, supporting game planning, and engaging as a change agent where appropriate. The world has so many tough problems to crack, and we need more partnerships focused on making this change happen.


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If you found this blog engaging, have questions about ordinary leadership or want to chat about leadership in general, it would be great to connect.


I set aside two weekly hours to make new connections and renew old ones. We have half an hour to discuss whatever you want - how we could work together, your projects and ideas, or something else. It's space for connection.

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